Although he would become known for his crime and cannibal films, when Make ’em Die Slowly Umberto Lenzi was just a sprout of a director, his stock in trade was adventure epics on a miniscule budget. Following his debut, the fun pirate movie Le avventure di Mary Read (Queen of the Seas, 1961), his next foray into historical film, Caterina di Russia (Catherine of Russia, 1963), turned east to Russia and the story of mad tsar Peter III and his wife Catherine, later to be known as Catherine the Great, the last, longest ruling, and most beloved of imperial Russia’s tsarinas. Catherine the Great’s reign closed out a century of rule regarded as the Golden Age of Russia, which began with the much less mad tsar Peter I, aka Peter the Great, and his wife Catherine I, who succeeded him upon his death and confusingly (as relates to this film) was known as Catherine of Russia. It’s easy to confuse Russian Peters and Catherines (though no more so than all the English King Johns, Williams, and Richards), but there’s no mistaking the insanity of Peter III.

Peter I had his quirks — like being so exasperated by an audience of inattentive and/or disgusted nobles at one of his scientific autopsies that he forced them to come down and eat a bite of corpse…or the fact that he was fond of the new field of dentistry and decided to practice it on less-than-willing members of his royal court — but Peter III was mad on a level far above the occasional awkward root bacchanal. Peter III was cut from the cloth of Caligula, a man so beyond the pale that a people who had previously put up with the likes of Ivan the Terrible were pushed to the point of armed rebellion, aligning behind Peter’s beloved wife Catherine in a brief civil war that saw the mad tsar deposed and his wife placed upon the throne.

Untangling royal lines of succession is a full-time job, but the road that led to Catherine the Great begins more or less with Peter I, who became tsar in May of 1682 and was declared emperor (a distinction perhaps lost on those who didn’t grow up in an old-fashioned monarchy) in 1721. During his reign, Peter I instituted a series of reforms inspired by the Age of Enlightenment that made Russia a major player on the European scene and, in the long run, resulted in Peter being declared Peter the Great, even though his reforms were sometimes enforced by draconian methods. In an effort to model the Russian court after the esteemed French court, he even insisted Russian nobles dress in French style and shave off their wild Russian beards. Failure to do so resulted in a whiskers tax. Like most monarchs, he led a “diverse” romantic life. He was wed in an arranged marriage to noblewoman Eudoxia Lopukhina. During this marriage he kept a mistress, Anna Mons.

He divorced Lopukhina in 1698 and unceremoniously bundled her off to a convent. Sometime after that, he met a peasant girl by the name of Martha Skavronskaya, destined to become Catherine I. Most of what’s told about the life of Catherine I/Martha Skavronskaya before she married Peter is legend and hearsay. The most fanciful version of the story sees her making her way into the arms of a Swedish soldier, then into the laundry room of a Russian regiment where she may or may not have become the mistress of the commanding officer, who eventually sold her to a guy named Prince Alexander Menshikov, with whom she might or might not have also carried on affair. What is known, at least, is that Menshikov was good friends with Peter the Great, and eventually the beautiful peasant/prisoner/maid/mistress caught the eye of the emperor, who took her as his second wife, first in a secret ceremony sometime around 1707 and again, publicly, on February 9, 1712.

Catherine was said to be a quick wit, compassionate, and possessed of both great energy and great skill at soothing her husband’s mercurial “eat this corpse” temperament. Peter I died in February 1725, at which time Catherine ascended to the throne, which she held until her own death in 1727, kicking off nearly a century of good times during which Russia was ruled primarily by women. There were some men on the throne, but few of them seemed to last more than a couple years. Peter II, Catherine I’s successor, ruled from May of 1727 through January of 1730, but was just a boy and died at the age of 14. He was succeeded by Anna Ioannovna, who reigned for a decade, then Ivan VI, who was a newborn when he inherited the throne. Before he could even walk, he’d been deposed, and Elizabeth Petrovna, Catherine I’s daughter, was crowned empress, to rule for 21 years before being succeeded by crazy Peter III, who reigned for about six months before he was overthrown, which led to the ascension of Catherine II, better known as Catherine the Great, Russia’s longest-reigning, last female monarch (July 1762 – November 1796) and the light of what is regarded as the apex of the Russian empire.

It is this story that Umberto Lenzi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Guido Malatesta, tells in Catherine of Russia. Unlike Queen of the Seas and most of Lenzi’s other period films, Catherine of Russia is not an adventure film. It hews more closely to the template of a political romance, full of gorgeous costumes and political machination but low on action. German actress Hildegard Knef, who a decade earlier had appeared alongside Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, and Ava Gardner in the 1952 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, plays Catherine II who, like the actress, was born in Germany (well, Prussia). Ironically, the Prussian-born Catherine longed to discover her Russian-ness, while her Russian-born husband fetishized the Prussians, so much so that he imported his own Prussian army and commanded his native Cossacks to look and behave more Prussian. This sat poorly with the Russians over whom he ruled, one of whom in the movie is dashing Cossack cavalry captain Orloff (Sergio Fantoni, whose appearance is at times so like Marcello Mastroianni that it borders on the distracting).

Orloff makes his entrance by heading off a potential massacre perpetrated at the order of not-yet tsar Peter III, a bold action that attracts the attention of Catherine and the ire of Peter, who conspires to have Orloff arrested and marched off to Siberia for a life of hard labor. It’s only one of Peter’s many ill-advised liberties, and soon his increasingly obvious mental deterioration has some of the court nobles plotting his overthrow. While Peter amasses the hatred of peoples both common and noble, Catherine rises in esteem as she tours the countryside, breaks bread with the peasants, and generally does her best to maneuver Peter away from some of his more horrific and disastrous impulses. She rarely succeeds at this task, but her efforts attract admirers who see her as a better choice for the throne than her maniacal husband.

Peter, mad but not entirely stupid, suspects subterfuge, and devises his own plot to counter the nascent coup before it begins. Unfortunately, Peter is, like most political leaders who fancy themselves military geniuses, not a military genius. After an escape orchestrated by Orloff, the Cossack regiments align behind Catherine for as big a revolution as Umberto Lenzi can afford to shoot. Which is, alas, not very big, as some ill-advised wide shots reveal.

For fans of swashbuckling cinema, Catherine of Russia has little to offer, with most of the “action” centering on throne room intrigue. Knef is a suitably imperious yet approachable Catherine, and Fantoni is a similarly passable heroic lead, but everyone is lost in the bright shining glow of Raoul Grassilli as Peter III. The story they are telling, budget notwithstanding, is a grand and operatic epic full of madness and espionage and war, and Grassilli sees no reason his portrayal of the insane tsar shouldn’t play to the back row. He shrieks, growls, barks, flails, flaps his hands, shouts, and swoons with gleeful abandon, a performance larger than the film around it but certainly welcome in a movie that is otherwise understated despite the opulent costumes and towering powdered wigs. More than a few subsequent actors playing mad emperors seem like they might have cast an eye the way of Raoul Grassilli’s Peter III.

Playing against a larger-than-life madman, Hildegard Knef suffers by virtue of being…well…virtuous, but there’s still a charisma about her performance, a blend of the determined, the vulnerable, the brave, and the heartbroken. Knef lived rather an extraordinary life. As a young girl in Germany during the War, she disguised herself as a man to escape the attention of advancing Red Army soldiers. When the dust settled, she sought out the stage in war-ravaged Berlin and later garnered acclaim for her role in Murderers Among Us, the first German film produced after the war and in which she played a survivor of the concentration camps who returns to her home only to find it occupied by a former German soldier. Knef’s performance attracted the attention of producer David O. Selznick, who wanted to help her launch a Hollywood career — provided she change her name and obscure her German background. She refused, remaining in Europe and garnering additional acclaim and controversy when, in 1951, she performed a nude scene in the film The Sinner. The nudity caused an uproar that Hildegard Knef found offensive, firing back against the indignant condemnation of the Catholic Church by responding, “I can’t understand all that tumult — five years after Auschwitz!”

Indeed, to fall over oneself in apoplectic fury over a brief nude scene given all that had transpired in the previous years seemed ridiculous, if predictable. A second stab at Hollywood came after The Sinner, but it never quite clicked for her. Instead, she found success on the Broadway stage. She worked steadily in Europe in films that ran the spectrum, including: Arthur Maria Rabenalt Mandragore (1952), a remake of 1929’s Alraune (starring Brigitte Helm of Metropolis fame) and based on a Frankenstein-esque horror story by Hanns Heinz Ewers, one of the luminaries of the German Decadence movement; Noel Langley’s 1954 remake of Svengali, in which she starred as the doomed singer Trilby; the Harry Alan Towers’ produced adventure film Mozambique; and the outlandish Hammer Studio’s fantasy adventure The Lost Continent. She even appeared in an episode of the American television series Scarecrow and Mrs. King, but as the 1980s wound on, her schedule slowed down and she fought several battles with cancer before finally succumbing on February 1, 2002.

Catherine of Russia is proof that Umberto Lenzi could competently handle a dramatic film, if still a drama that operated on rather an arch level. But for people who had thrilled to Queen of the Sea, this more deliberately paced historical drama might come as a bit of a letdown. The final battle is mounted as handsomely as Lenzi could manage, with plenty of explosions as Catherine leads a Cossack army into battle against Peter’s Prussians (the film is, for the most part, overwrought but historically accurate — relatively speaking — up at least until this point), but those looking for a continuation of the swashbuckling fare of his previous films won’t find it here. Which is fine, since 1963 saw him direct three more films, all of which more than fulfill a fan’s demand for swashbuckling adventure: Invincible Masked Rider; two “Sandokan the Pirate” movies starring Hercules himself, Steve Reeves: and Samson and the Slave Queen, an improbable pairing of ancient world hero Maciste and the masked swordsman Zorro.